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Top 10 Japanese whiskies

Following whisky expert Jim Murray naming a Japanese single malt whisky the best in the world, we take a look at some of the country’s most high-profile expressions.

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

It only came as a surprise to those outside the world of whisky that Japan should manage to top the chart when it comes to truly great whisky, as it has been a long-time coming for the country’s exceptional producers.

With innovation and a devotion to a fine drinking experience no matter what the price, Japan has top-quality whisky expressions across the board.

So here we’ve compiled a top 10 of Japanese whiskies that pays tribute to Japan’s distilling heritage – which can now truly be considered as world-beating.

Click through to see which expressions made it into our Top 10 Japanese Whiskies…

10 – Suntory Rolling Stones Edition 

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In celebration of the 50th anniversary of legendary rock band the Rolling Stones, Japanese drinks group Suntory released 150 limited edition whisky bottles shaped like the band’s iconic lips and tongue logo – and what a bottle it is!

Priced US$6,300 (£4,000) when they were released, each bottle also features a crystal stopper and black leather display case, while the whisky is described by the company as a special blend with a “complex aroma”.

 9 – Black Nikka Clear

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The first Nikka brand featured is Black Nikka Clear. Owned by Ashai Breweries, Black Nikka Clear is among the best known of Nikka brands with its familiar black label featuring the bearded “King of Blenders”.

Black Nikka Clear was the first Japanese whisky to make full use of non-peat malt, from which it derives its characteristic soft aroma and smooth palate. This whisky is distinguished by its dry and accessible flavor.

A Japanese mass-market seller, it can be bought for around £30 in the UK.

8 – Suntory Kakubin Whisky

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First launched in 1937, Suntory Kakubin, which means “square bottle” in Japanese, is described as a “classic example of lighter Japanese whisky from its era”.

Since this first release, Kakubin has been recognisable for a flavour tailored to the Japanese palate and its enduring tortoise-shell bottle.

In recent years, the “Kaku highball” – a mix of the whisky with sparkling water – has become a popular way to drink the whisky, turning those unfamiliar with the spirit into devotees and greatly contributing to the revitalisation of the whisky market in Japan.

Another staple whisky in the japanese market, it can be bought for around £26 in the UK.

7 – Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 year old

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The age statement on this, another Nikka offering, refers not to the age of the blend, but rather it tells you the age of the youngest whisky in the blend; in this case, 12 years. The Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 year old is a blend of single malt whiskies from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries.
Named after the company’s founder and Master Distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, the 12 year old Taketsuru bottling is a perfect introduction to Nikka’s two malt whisky distilleries in a single bottle. Yoichi, with its coal-fired pot stills, produces spirit known for its rich, smokey and peaty flavours. Miyagikyo, with its taller stills, by contrast produces spirit that’s lighter, fruitier, and softer than Yoichi.
Blended to showcase the features of both spirits and bottled at 40% ABV, it is now discontinued, but sells on auction at around £40 per 750ml bottle.

6 – Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky 

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The Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky is made using 100% barley that is distilled in a Coffey still (also known as a continuous, or column still) that is more commonly used for creating grain whisky.

Imported from Scotland in 1963, these old stills yield a distillate which, according to Nikka, helps to produce more flavour and depth than modern column stills, imparting a distinct character that defines the house blends.

The whisky has a rich flavour and a surprisingly soft texture – something that is “well worth exploring” according to Royal Mile Whiskies, who sell the offering at £51.50 for a 700ml bottle.

 5 – The Yamazaki Single Malt 50 Year

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What is reportedly the rarest and oldest Japanese single malt whisky of all time, this beautifully packaged offering, aged in Japanese Mizunara oakwhich lends the whisky its deep amber color and red highlights, has been described as having “deep, intense spice and even a hint of umami.”

A limited offering of just 150 bottles was released, adding to the mystique of this half-century single malt.

On Friday 15 August, Asia’s largest ever sale of Japanese whisky took place at Bonhams Hong Kong, where a single bottle of the rare Yamazaki fetched HK$257,000 (£19,886).

4 – The Hakushu Single Malt Distillers Reserve

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From the Hakushu distillery in the foothills of Mount Kaikomagatake is this Distiller’s Reserve single malt whisky, a no-age-statement expression full of “smoky” and “herbacious” qualities that the brand says defines its offerings.

Both lightly-peated and heavily-peated malts were used in making this “complex and enjoyable” whisky.

The blend of whisky is matured in American oak for around 18 years.

Bottled at 43% abv, it is described as tasting of yuzu – an east Asian citrus fruit similar to oranges – grapefruit and lemon thyme with a distinct distillery character that lends itself to mixing in the popular Japanese fashion: in highballs.

This expression retails in the UK for around £40.

3 – The Yamazaki Single Malt Puncheon

japan_yam16This unique expression forms part of the brand’s cask series, where a series of malts are aged in different woods to show off their mastery of flavouring and coopering.

A broad range of casks are made by the distillery’s own craftsmen. Among them is the puncheon: a stout, 480-litre cask which nurtures the spirit as it matures over the years.

Inside the oak puncheon the area of whisky per litre that comes into contact with the wood is small compared with the typical 180-litre Bourbon barrel or 230-litre hogshead. Thus, the natural ageing process proceeds slowly.

The Puncheon is the “essential ingredient” that gives Yamazaki single “malt whisky its unique balance of sweet flavours and deep rich aromas,” according to the company.

Its latest release of the expression retails at around £100.

2 – Karuizawa Cask #3603

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Cask #3603 from Karuizawa, filled on 1st September 1964 and bottled on Christmas Eve 2012, is one of the oldest Japanese single malt whiskies in history.

At the time of bottling it was the oldest expression of the now-closed Karuizawa. Only 143 individually-numbered bottles were released.

Matured for over 48 years in a 400 litre sherry oak cask, the whisky lay undisturbed in a traditional dunnage warehouse at Karuizawa before being transferred to Chichibu where it was bottled at cask strength (57.7% abv).

It is naturally coloured and non-chill filtered to retain maximum flavour, mouth feel and integrity. Cask #3603 is one of the very few Karuizawa casks left from the 1960s – which helps explain the price tag of £10,000.

1 – The Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013

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Scooping the coveted number one spot is the whisky that came number one in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015, which he described as “near incredible genius”.

With its “nose of exquisite boldness” and finish of “light, teasing spice”, the Japanese no-age-statement expression soared to success while Scotch brands failed to appear in Murray’s top five.

The Beam Suntory-owned Japanese whisky has been aged in casks that once held Oloroso Sherry, and was described by its producers as having a raisin, Muscat, “sweet and sour” flavour.

The whisky from Japan’s oldest distillery is imbued with “intense, fruity aromas and a stunning deep bronze hue,” according to MasterofMalt.com, who retail the expression at £101.28.

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